Another Caltrans Lie: Video Claims Widening 5 Freeway Reduces Pollution, Congestion

Does anyone outside of Caltrans still think that widening freeways will reduce pollution and minimize congestion? Image: screen capture from Caltrans video
Does anyone outside of Caltrans still think that widening freeways will reduce pollution and minimize congestion? Image: screen capture from Caltrans video
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It is jarring that nearly two decades into the twenty-first century, California’s transportation department is still making claims that freeway widening will somehow curb pollution and reduce congestion. These are false claims–lies. Past experience and research show that widening freeways worsens congestion and air quality, yet Caltrans repeatedly claims the contrary.

In a new video shown at the Metro Congestion, Highway and Roads Committee earlier this week, and posted online yesterday, Caltrans claims that its $3.2+ billion dollar (and growing – see below) project to widen the 5 Freeway through much of L.A. County will “minimize congestion” and “reduce pollution” (minute 3:15).

Earlier Caltrans videos in 2016 and 2017 make similarly indefensible claims about widening the 5 Freeway.

When the freeway builders got going in the middle of the 20th Century, they promised that building freeways would get congestion off of surface streets. If they had been right back then, then by now all of those Southern California freeways should have pretty much entirely eliminated congestion from nearby streets. But because of induced travel and other clearly understood, well-documented predictors of travel behavior, the promised reduced congestion never happened. In fact, L.A. keeps building and widening freeways, and traffic congestion keeps getting worse. When capacity is added to roadways, congestion increases.

And, based on Caltrans’ promises, shouldn’t L.A. freeways have reduced pollution to pretty much nothing by now?

It is astonishing that anyone can claim that freeways reduce pollution. Along with all that congested freeway car traffic come plenty of other ills. Increased pollution is one of the big ones – and it brings with it child asthma, cancer, global warming, and more. Freeways’ heavy costs also include traffic deaths, displacement, noise, disconnected neighborhoods, and budget-breaking infrastructure maintenance costs passed along to future generations.

Metro is funding the widening of the 5 Freeway through its county sales tax measures. This week Metro announced that both the upper and lower 5 Freeway expansion projects are expected to go over budget (see page 54 of this staff report). Hopefully, local media will pick up on this story, the way they have critiqued rail project overruns. Don’t hold your breath.

There may justifications for widening freeways. The project will increase car capacity. The project creates lots of quality jobs, especially in the construction industry. Many L.A. politicians supported billions in highway expansion; some do this happily, while some see it as a sort of devil’s bargain to get drivers to vote to fund rail system expansion. Based on these justifications, freeway widening projects do have relatively broad public support.

Nonetheless, Caltrans public communications should be about what the project actually does. Caltrans needs to stop lying and stop promising results that Caltrans cannot and will not deliver.

How road widening works. Cartoon via @BrentToderian Twitter
How road widening works. Cartoon via @BrentToderian Twitter

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In this new promotional video, Caltrans District 7 inexplicably proclaims that widening a stretch of the 5 freeway in southeast L.A. County will “reduce congestion” and “improve air quality.” The video, shown at Metro’s board and committee meetings recently, further boasts about “better safety” and how outsized new bridges over the freeway will each “dwarf the […]